Why do aphorisms and cynicism go together?

Why are aphorisms cynical more often than books are for instance?

A good single sentence saying can’t require background evidencing or further explanation. It must be instantly recognizable as true. It also needs to be news to the listener. Most single sentences that people can immediately verify as true they already believe. What’s left? One big answer is things that people don’t believe or think about much for lack of wanting to, despite evidence. Drawing attention to these is called cynicism.

HT to Robin Hanson for the question and to Francois de La Rochefoucauld for some examples:

We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those whom we bore.

We promise according to our hopes; we fulfill according to our fears.

What often prevents us from abandoning ourselves to one vice is that we have several.

We confess to little faults only to persuade ourselves we have no great ones.

There are few people who are more often wrong than those who cannot suffer being wrong.

Nothing prevents us being natural so much as the desire to appear so.

18 responses to “Why do aphorisms and cynicism go together?

  1. smart

  2. Also, because you have to be a particularly good writer with a fairly specialized sort of wit to come up with memorable and pithy aphorisms. Those writers tend to run to the cynical.

    Possibly this is because wit, the skill that supports aphorism-making, takes practice. And one good way to practice it is to make cutting remarks about people. Those who are disposed to make cutting remarks are more likely to be able to produce aphorisms…

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  4. For your next trick: why do folksongs and liberalism go together?

  5. Not to be too cynical, but there would seem to be a little selection bias here.

  6. “We confess to little faults only to persuade ourselves we have no great ones.”

    I’m not sure which is the original but I like it better as:

    “We confess to little faults only to persuade others that we have no great ones.”

  7. What distinguishes an aphorism from a proverb? Is it simply the credit to a specific individual, as opposed to oral tradition? If so, then it has something to do with the nature of attribution as well, because proverbs do not strike me as especially cynical.

  8. I think this is the best post yet on this blog.

  9. It’s hard to be cynical on the length of a book. Cynicism is a poisonious way of thinking & writing; you can write _The Devil’s Dictionary_, but notice that each entry is short… Even cynical books like _Catch-22_ tend to the brief.

    As well, when is cynicism most usually employed? You don’t go around making small talk like ‘most companies fail’ or ‘statistically, you know a criminal’ or ‘behind every great fortune is a great crime’.
    Rather, you use cynicism *against* something. Cynicism is negative; you use it to pop someone’s bubble. For that, you want something you can slip in between the brief pauses for breath in another’s lengthy expatiation on how *this* program will work – something so memorable that people will hear & comprehend it before they can stop themselves. Novels, alas, have never been very good as rhetorical tools.

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